The prospect of depleted resources in Praia means that Nigeria must win on Friday when the Lone Stars come to call in Lagos
Based on the 1-1 draw between Cape Verde and Central African Republic, Nigeria’s Super Eagles start the second round of the World Cup in a fairly strong position.
A victory would land them immediately at the top of Group C so that they could lead from the front, as has now become the custom under German coach Gernot Rohr.
However, this low pressure situation is greatly hampered by ongoing UK travel restrictions.
Four days after Friday’s opening qualifier with Liberia, Nigeria will travel to Cape Verde, cut off from its Premier League stars due to the island’s status as a ‘Red List’ nation. Every player who travels there must be quarantined for ten days on return to the UK, not made available to their clubs and deprived of essential training and fitness work.
Cape Verde is a difficult getaway anyway, no thanks to the artificial surface in Praia. Their victory over Cameroon in March shows it perfectly, as does the fact that their last competitive defeat came in their own place in 2017 against Senegal.
Knowing that he cannot rely on some of his best players makes a win over Liberia not only suitable for Rohr, but essential.
How the Super Eagles handle this pressure will be instructive.
To absolutely need a result is not a known state of affairs for this group of players; probably the only time they have encountered – against Argentina during the 2018 World Cup – they have disappeared under the pressure of the moment.
Liberia, of course, is nowhere near such a challenge. Yet it is important to consider collective psychology in the light of this challenge.
If it corpse to suggest that Nigeria’s mental state stands in the way of a victory on Friday, this is because it is the case do represent exactly that.
While the Super Eagles have found the trip to Freetown a difficult proposal since the start of the decade, the home games were simpler: there was a 6-1 hammer on the way to qualifying for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, as well as’ an unforgettable 2-0 victory during the qualifying series for the World Cup in 2002, which was a turning point for the two teams’ qualifying hopes.
Friday should not be any different.
After all, it is a Liberia team that could not advance in the qualifying round of the Afcon qualifying round, and lost with penalties against a remarkable Chad team that would end up at the bottom of their qualifying group.
The Lone Stars are the 150th in the Fifa rankings, only better than eight other African countries, and have not won a competitive match abroad in more than four years.
The elimination of Sierra Leone, who famously came through two encounters with Nigeria in Afcon qualifying intact, naturally deserves recognition.
In Kpah Sherman, they have a willing worker up front who will chase hard and force defenders back, and Terrence Tisdell is the team’s technical leader from midfield. However, the fact that they manage their club activities in Malaysia and the Turkish second division, respectively, illustrates the gap between Liberia and Nigeria.
In their most recent outing, they were defeated 5-1 in June by a home-grown Algerian team.
The streak was then determined: it would not be enough for the Super Eagles to win. It will also be necessary to win convincingly.
The absence due to an injury to Samuel Chukwueze makes it somewhat difficult.
The straightness and quick feet of the Villarreal wing have the ability to balance even the most stubborn opponent, and without him Rohr will have to make a choice between Moses Simon’s efficiency and the wild, witty nature of Samuel Kalu’s play.
The rest of the team chooses more than that, although some suggest that a midfield from Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo is a bit too negative towards a team like Liberia.
Joe Aribo offers a greater attacking momentum and technical ability than the Watford man, but has struggled to hold the middle of the field against Sierra Leone, and is likely to miss the bill. However, it is noteworthy that the Super Eagles only found a second goal against Lesotho in March when Etebo stepped forward to get into the box.
With the risk of looking too far ahead, it will also be interesting to see what Rohr’s approach to bedding is in the newer members of the team.
People like Kingsley Michael and Innocent Bonke have been added to the squad for the trip to Cape Verde due to the British red list ban.
It would hardly be wise to throw one or both of them in the deep end in Praia without first introducing them here against Liberia, and so this match could also serve as a preparation for Tuesday.
All the more reason to finalize the result early Friday.